15:00 BST, Friday 8th June, Otkrytie Arena, (Moscow, Russia)
On Friday, Carlos Queiroz and Edgaras Jankauskas will play against each other for the first time in their careers as managers of Iran and Lithuania respectively.
Iran, the more in-form team, will look to complete their run of World Cup warm-up matches with a win, whilst Lithuania will look to bounce back from a series of subpar performances.
Iran have been a little Jekyll and Hyde in the past few qualifiers, winning impressively against both Algeria and Uzbekistan, before suffering a 2-1 defeat to Turkey in what proved to be a difficult game for ‘Team Melli’.
Yet despite losing, the pace and skill the Iranians showed on the counterattack suggested that, whilst they may be underdogs in their World Cup group, they are a still a team who can pose problems for an opposition’s defence.
Lithuania, meanwhile, have failed to turn up in their recent friendlies. Suffering three defeats in four games against England, Georgia and Estonia, their defence was not up to the task and their attack was virtually non-existent.
A 1-0 win against Armenia was a good response from the Lithuanian players, yet this was followed by a 1-1 draw against Latvia that did not inspire confidence. All their hopes rest on the result of this Friday’s game.
Whilst this game may not live up to the fanfare of fixtures involving the likes of Germany and Spain, with the young talent on show, it will still be an interesting watch, giving a good indication of how Iran are looking in the run up to the World Cup.
Last Time Out
Iran 1-2 Turkey (International Friendly)
Despite Turkey being the favourites to win the game, Iran made it a closer game than expected due to some late drama.
After Tosun scored twice to send his side apparently cruising to a victory, the Turkish defender Omer Bayram put his team under pressure when he handled the ball in his own penalty box, allowing Ashkan Dejagah to convert from the penalty spot in the 91st minute.
Whilst this was not enough to earn Iran the three points, it puts Turkey at a disadvantage as Bayram will have to serve a three-match ban for his red card.
Lithuania 1-1 Latvia (International Friendly)
After a series of defeats in which they could not score, Jankauskas’s men earned a hard-fought point in a 1-1 draw against Latvia.
In the end, they were saved by Karolis Laukzemic, who scored in the 86th minute to prevent Latvia from taking all three points.
In a game of few chances, the Lithuanian attack persevered with 12 shots taken during the match. Despite the fact that Latvia spent much of the tie behind the ball, their determination eventually paid off in this Baltic derby.
With Carlos Queiroz faced with a fully fit squad, this the perfect opportunity to implement his players at peak efficiency.
The only slight setback is that midfielder Saeid Ezatolahi will be completing a suspension after receiving a red card and will, therefore, have to support his team from the sidelines. Expect Ashkan Dejagah to come in in his place.
Just as for Queiroz, Edgaras Jankauskas’s team will also be fully fit but, by comparison, none of the players in the Lithuanian team will be serving suspensions.
Key Battle: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Iran) vs Fiodor Cernych (Lithuania)
Both Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Fiodor Cernych are the main pillars upon which the fate and hopes of their country’s lie.
Whilst Cernych will be more experienced than the Iranian youngster, both are capable of changing the game and putting their teams in a better position come June 8th.
Both use different methods to evade defenders that are equally effective. Whilst Jahanbakhsh’s pace and dribbling ability allows him to pick out teammates with inch-perfect through balls, Cernych, the captain of Lithuania, has proven that he has an eye for goal with excellent shooting ability to match.
Whoever will be defending either player will have a long night ahead of them: if either player is in their element, stopping them will be a tall order.
Sardar Azmoun… the ‘Iranian Messi’
Sardar Azmoun. Remember the name because it may linger on your mind for a long time following the World Cup.
The Iranian forward, also dubbed as the ‘Iranian Messi’ is all the rage in the build-up to the competition. His goal record for the national team is impressive, picking up 23 from 31 games, giving him the best goals-per-game ratio of any footballer in Iran’s history.
Whilst the link to Messi may be a slight exaggeration, his dribbling skills and superb control of the ball echo that of the great Barcelona player. Azmoun is also talented at heading the ball which gave him the second nickname of the ‘Iranian Zlatan’.
If he can perform in a way that emulates both players then he could light up the World Cup this summer.
A one-man team?
Whilst Lithuania have suffered defeat at the hands of Georgia, Estonia, and England, one man that has stood out for them is their captain, and striker, Fiodor Cernych.
He has consistently performed at a good level across their games and has scored eight goals for them across 37 international games. As such, the 27-year-old is a source of the attack in a team that has lacked dynamism and creative flair in recent tournaments.
Yet he is only one man. Without the adequate delivery and support from wingers and midfielders, there is seldom little he can do, other than continue to perform to his best ability.
If Lithuania are to get anything out of their game against Iran, they will need to work collectively and attack as a team, rather than use one man as their only hope of success.
Prediction: Iran 2-1 Lithuania
On paper, Iran appears to have the stronger side and will, therefore, be favourites to win. They have a solid defence combined with an offence able to hit teams on the break and score goals through Jahanbakhsh.
Lithuania might claw one goal back if Cernych brings his A game, but Queiroz’s men should be too strong for them on the day.
Who will win the clash at Otkrytie stadium? Let us know in the comments below.
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